Undressed: A brief History Of Underwear

Undressed: A brief history of underwear is the latest fashion related exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

The V&A is my all time favourite museum in London – it is also the only museum I have membership to – so I happily popped along to check out the Undressed exhibition two weeks ago and had a lovely time exploring, and learning, about underwear.

Who after all ever really thinks about underwear? The most I usually manage is how soon do I need to do a load of laundry if I am running low!

The Lifetime of Underwear

Underwear has been around for a while. After all, warm clothing was necessary on the Continent as far back as almost 40,000 years ago, during the ice age. And in Britain, it was only 15,000 years ago that warmer conditions allowed for habitation.

The cold temperatures of that time, and the discovery of different sized bone needles (there are several on display at the British Museum in London) suggest that different needles would have been used for different purposes back then, much as they are today.

This in turn suggests to me that it is quite a strong possibility that underwear would have been worn all those years ago too!

The underwear created and worn would probably have been much more about function – warmth over design or style in those freezing temperatures – and worn much like how we have worn underwear hidden under our clothes for centuries. It is only in these modern times times we are prone to showing off our underwear to maximum effect!

Underwear: Modesty or Function?

We wear underwear to retain our modesty for the most part, but also for cleanliness. The thought of wearing clothes without underwear makes me shudder… And yet, some people consider this to be normal!

Traditionally – and I’m talking about recent tradition now, not ice age tradition! 😉 – underwear was made from cotton and linen. These fibres were capable of being washed at high temperatures and so were considered a good option to be worn next to the skin. All that sweaty sweatiness – euw – could be washed away.

Underwear is also great for protecting the more intimate parts of our bodies from the harsher fabrics often used in our day to day clothing. Both men and women utilise pants / panties / trunks to prevent chaffing when wearing denim jeans and other heavy fabrics close to their bodies.

Shirts as Underwear

Back in the day, men wore shirts as underwear! They were also not supposed to reveal the shirt sleeves when out in public.

One example in the exhibition is of a shirt with very tightly pleated shirt sleeves, gathering the fabric in so that the sleeve of the shirt would closely cover the arm, yet also fit nicely within the sleeve of the jacket worn on top.

The exhibition also mentioned how on some shirts, collars and cuffs were designed to be removable. This allowed for decorative elements peeking out from under jackets yet still allowed the shirt to be washed at high temperature.

Corsets as Underwear

Another aspect of underwear are corsets, which have been around in one form or another since the sixteenth century! Used to help modify a person’s body shape – both men and women have used corsets through the centuries – corsets were initially considered to be wonderful in treating a range of medical conditions.

They later became quite controversial in the 1900s due to the potential health hazards of being tightly laced into such an item. With a body laced into a corset that tight, breathing problems could often occur and even internal bleeding!

The Bra

The bra was an evolution of the corset and allowed much more freedom to breath, being constructed to merely support breasts in their place, and not to suck in a woman’s waist as well.

It wasn’t long before several variations of the bra were designed and today there are many styles of bra to consider when shopping or making your own:

  • The full cup bra
  • Plunge bra
  • Balconette bra
  • Backless bra
  • Maternity bra
  • Minimising bra
  • Push up bra
  • Racer back bra
  • Strapless bra
  • T-Shirt bra

Underwear as Outerwear?

Much in the way we use various sewing techniques to alter the silhouette of garments we wear today, the underwear worn in the 1800s and 1900s was decorated in similar ways.

Tucks, pleats, gathers, lace and satin detailing helped to make underwear alluring and sexy.

Nowadays we also use bright colours, printed fabrics, crystal or beaded embellishments and even studs to make our underwear more acceptable as outerwear. The more elaborate the design of a bra, the more acceptable it is to wear it as outerwear.

Underwear, it seems, is no longer about wearing it for modesty, cleanliness or special moments with our beloved; underwear is now often used to objectify both men and women; is used to suggest sexual prowess of both men and women; yet also held up to represent feminist ideals.

My Underwear

While I love the idea of (sensible) corsets, and tightly pleated shirt sleeves, I wonder how practical these would be on a day to day basis? I have recently bought a copy of “The Secrets of Sewing Lingerie’ and fully intend to put one of the styles to the test before Christmas…

Have you decided at any point to make your own underwear? Have you any tips or tricks you could share to make the task easier for us all? Let me know in the comments below!

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